generation gaps

Against Our Will Author on What Today’s Rape Activists Don’t Get

Susan Brownmiller.
Susan Brownmiller. Photo: John J. Sunderland/The Denver Post, MediaNews Group/Getty Images

Susan Brownmiller, who published the groundbreaking Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape in 1975, takes issue with the current conversation around sexual assault. She believes it’s unrealistic for women to think they can drink like men and still be safe, and that women are responsible for keeping themselves out of dangerous situations. The 80-year-old is also concerned the campus activist movement ignores the experiences of women of color and low socioeconomic status, whom she says are statistically more likely to be assaulted.

We caught up with Brownmiller Monday night at the Peggy Siegal Company’s premiere screening of Peace Officer — a new film that looks at the militarization of the police.

I was wondering if you have been following the discussions of rape activism on college campuses.
Yes, very closely. In the 1970s we had an extraordinary movement against sexual assault in this country and changed the laws. They [the campus activists] don’t seem to know that. They think they are the first people to discover rape, and the problem of consent, and they are not.

They have been tremendously influenced by the idea that “You can drink as much as you want because you are the equal of a guy,” and it is not true. They don’t accept the fact there are predators out there, and that all women have to take special precautions. They think they can drink as much as men, which is crazy because they can’t drink as much as men. I find the position “Don’t blame us, we’re survivors” to be appalling.

Also, they [college women] are not the chief targets of rapists. Young women and all women in housing projects and ghettos are still in far greater danger than college girls. 

So what would you tell the college activists right now?
Extend your focus to the larger percentage of women and girls who are in danger of being raped. They are more important than the college kids. Also, the rape kits that have not been processed are a huge problem, and they are not dealing with that. 

Is there a reason why you think the conversation has reemerged on college campuses?
I don’t know. The women’s movement in the ‘70s was not a campus movement at all. I like to see activism wherever it rears its head, but this is a very limited movement that doesn’t accept reality. Culture may tell you, “You can drink as much as men,” but you can’t. People think they can have it all ways. The slut marches bothered me, too, when they said you can wear whatever you want. Well sure, but you look like a hooker. They say, “That doesn’t matter,” but it matters to the man who wants to rape. It’s unrealistic. I don’t know what happened to the understanding people had in the 1970s.

Do you worry that if you say people are drinking, and therefore putting themselves at risk, that your perspective could be considered victim-blaming?

If you drink you lose your sense of judgment. Everybody knows that. You should know that when you are going into a fraternity party, something can happen. It happened to my roommate, she went to a party, got skunk-drunk, and she was gang-raped by the fraternity guys. They broke her arm. 

You are taking a strong position here. 
Well, I take a hard line with victims of domestic violence, too. I feel it is my place as a feminist to say, “Get out, get out, get out of this relationship.” They feel that we should respect their opinions and beliefs because they are survivors. If they can’t get out because they don’t want to reduce their living circumstances, or they don’t want to go, or they are passive people, then I am supposed to respect that. But I don’t. My feeling is “Get out.”

And my feeling about young women trapped in sex situations that they don’t want is: “Didn’t you see the warning signs? Who do you expect to do your fighting for you?” It is a little late, after you are both undressed, to say “I don’t want this.”

I guess the hope is that young men would respect that.
That would be nice. There is not much attention on them is there?

What Today’s Rape Activists Don’t Get